How to Give a Good Scientific Presentation
by Peter Frame (I lost the full reference, sorry)
You're up next to give your research talk. Waves of tension roll over you, making you
physically nauseated. "I was trained for experiments, not speeches!" you think. You start
looking for a barf bagÉ Don't panic! To give you an upper hand over those butterflies in
your stomach, we've compiled some techniques to make your next presentation your
Public speaking is an essential but neglected skill in science. The result is that good
science gets shortchanged by talks that are boring, convoluted, or just plain bad. Read
on to find out how to ensure your talk does justice to your research!
Know Your Audience - Before, During, After
One of the keys to giving a good talk is knowing your audience. Who is your audience?
Anticipate what your audience will need and prepare your presentation accordingly.
Scientists from outside your lab will need more background info than your labmates. A
non-scientific audience needs a completely simplified approach with lots of analogies.
- Bad speakers make their audiences work too hard. If an audience has to think too
much to follow you, then they'll get lost or give up. Good speakers make listening
easy by doing the heavy lifting for their audience and simplifying their points.
- Keep track of your audience during your talk. Are people starting to doze? If so,
maybe it's time to hurry things along. Do they look confused? Then it's time to
slow down. Don't expect your audience to keep pace with you: that's your job.
- Your talk isn't over after you've stopped speaking. The response from your
listeners can give you excellent feedback on how you can improve your next talk.
Record your impressions of the types of questions asked, and where the audience
seemed to be confused. Then make adjustments for your next presentation.
Know your material
Getting up in front of a crowd is already stressful. Why compound your stress by having
poor command of your presentation materials? Avoid memorizing your talk word for word,
but don't completely wing it -- both extremes create more anxiety. By being properly
prepared, you'll relieve yourself of a great deal of stress.
- Focus on communicating, not performing. The more you keep in mind that you
are communicating about your research, and not putting on a show, the easier it
will be for you to control your anxiety and communicate clearly.
- KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid! Simplify your slides and graphics as much as you
can. Be ruthless in cutting stuff out. Complicated graphics create confusion.
- For each one of your slides, prepare key phrases or points you want to make.
Don't overload a slide with too much info. And, 30 slides for an hour-long talk is
about the upper limit for most audiences.
- Make sure your colors work together. Blue text on a blue background is not good.
Avoid bright, intense colors that clash; they make you look amateurish.
- Stay on track. Digressions can creep up on you but stay in control. Remember,
you're the speaker and you're in the driver's seat. Pace yourself; there's nothing
worse in a talk than having to speed over the good stuff because you wasted too
much time on unimportant material.
- Practice. Then practice some more. The more familiar you are with what you're
going to say, the less uncertainty and stress you'll have. Don't succumb to the
temptation to wing it; you'll probably fail. Know your stuff cold!
Give your talk that extra polish
OK, so you know your audience and know your material. You've simplified and clarified
and are ready to shine. Before you rush to the podium, here are some extra tips that a
surprising number of scientists overlook but that make for a polished talk:
- Make eye contact with your audience. Too many scientists look at the floor or talk
to the screen or the back wall.
- Don't pace or bob. We've all smirked at speakers who pace back and forth or bob
up and down. Make sure you're not doing the same!
- Hold your laser pointer still! That small spot on your autorad might be obvious to
you, but it sure isn't to anyone else. Point slowly and deliberately.
- AR-TI-CU-LATE. Speak slowly and clearly. Don't mumble.
- Uh, you have a problem, with, uh, saying "uh" all the time. One marvelously
simple (and funny!) way to rid yourself of this verbal stumbling block is to talk for
a few minutes saying "uh" between every word. So, uh, try uh talking uh like uh
this uh for uh awhile. You'll get so sick of saying "uh" that you'll have magically
flushed it from your vocabulary.
- Be enthusiastic! If you're not excited about your experiments, don't expect
anyone else to be interested.
But, how do you get rid of that nauseating tension in the minutes before you go on?
Well, an old trick taught in acting classes magically gets rid of tension: tense up every
muscle in your body at once, hold for five seconds, then release. You'll be amazed at
how your tension disappears! (But do this when no one's lookingÉ)
The next level
The best way to get better at speaking in public is to do more of it. Volunteer to do
journal club presentations. Take a public speaking or drama class. Sign up for your local
Toastmasters group. And be scientific about it: observe good speakers and absorb what
makes them good, and conversely, observe bad speakers and avoid what makes them
bad. Who knows? Maybe one day you'll actually like public speaking!